Souad Massi: Interview
by Garth Cartwright (January 2002)
Souad Massi burst onto the world music scene in October, 2001 with a performance at WOMEX (the world music expo) in Rotterdam that captured everyone’s attention. At the time her debut album Raoui was only available in France. Although Souad was signed to Island Records the UK branch of Island declined to release Raoui. Fortunately, independent label Wrasse Records stepped in and licensed the album so giving Raoui the release it so rightfully deserves.
While the likes of Khaled and Rachid Taha have established Algeria on the international musical stage, Souad’s sound has little to do with their pumping rai groove. Instead, she sings plaintively over acoustic backings. Nominated for the Newcomer award at the Radio 3 Awards for World Music, Souad did not win but she still came to London to witness the event. This interview took place in her hotel where we pieced together questions and answers in a mixture of her broken English and my minimal French. Souad’s graceful presence and winning smile helped what could have been a difficult assignment.
Q: Welcome to London even if you didn’t win an award.
A: Thank you. It is nice for me to be here and meet the English people who appreciate my music. And to be nominated for the BBC Award is an honour itself.
Q: I take it the success of Raoui has made your life much busier?
A: Yes, I am a little tired. I was not prepared - when you have fifteen concerts to play in a row it becomes hard work - but I am pleased that people like the album.
Q: Growing up in Algiers were you listening to a lot of the music we associate with Algeria - rai and kabylia?
A: No. When I was young I listened to rock, pop, Latin, folk but not traditional Algerian music. The new generation in Algeria is young and listen to R’n’B, rap, rock - the same as the young people in other countries, listening to the new.
Q: You sang and toured Algeria for seven years; firstly with a flamenco band and then with a hard rock band. How successful were you in Algeria?
A: The flamenco band was when I first started out. I love flamenco. The music of Paco De Lucia. The singing of Camaron. But it was difficult for me to sing flamenco and I was much happier with my band Atakor. We mixed rock and folk and played a lot of concerts and were on the TV. But because of the civil war in Algeria they closed the concert halls and when you do music in a poor country you can’t live. So I stopped doing it. I had studied town planning at university and I worked in this.
Q: Is there a danger that the increasing amounts of fusion going on in world music forms will mean the end for traditional musics?
A: Well, I mix the traditional music of Algeria with the folk and rock music so I hope not. When I was young I did not like the traditional music but now I find a way to make it part of my music.
Q: Is it important for people to understand the culture that the music comes from?
A: Yes, I think it is and I appreciate that the English people are very open to Arabic music. In France it was initially more difficult. It is important to know about the other countries. If people care about what’s happening it means we are not alone.
Q: You left Algeria to sing at the festival Femmes d’Algerie in Paris in 1999 and have since taken up residence in Paris. Was it an easy shift?
A: At first it was very hard to me. It was not the same life/language/attitude and you have to change all your habits. In France people are very distant. When I speak I touch people and they jump away, say 'don’t touch'. And the speed of life. And the lack of sun. And it is always raining and the people have sad faces. Now I am used to it but there are other difficulties. I am proud to be Algerian and Muslim but I am a modern Muslim woman and some of the Algerian men in Paris do not like that. They ask me why I wear trousers. Why I do not cover my head. They are caught between Europe and Algeria and end up living in the shadow of both and this is where the fundamentalism comes from.
Q: What do you think of World Music as a category?
A: Yes, my music is perhaps not the traditional kind but I sing in Arabic so I like to be in this niche. And my music is a mix of traditional and folk and pop. I am a seeker - I want to seek out lots of forms of music and I have a lot of ideas for my second album. So, World Music? It’s fine. We are all of the world, yes?
Q: As you largely sing in Arabic many listeners cannot comprehend what you are singing about. Does this concern you?
A: I think they can understand the emotion in the songs. This is more important.
Q: Your album and its first song are called Raoui. Can you tell me what this means?
A: It means 'storyteller'. The song goes 'I want a story/to forget my life/it’s very hard/ to forget my life'. It’s about someone wanting to escape the terrible reality of the war in Algeria.
Q: You sing about the war in Algeria on other songs don’t you?
A: Yes, I sing songs of peace. And I sing of love, of my life, of relationships, of the reality of women in Algeria.
Q: Why do you think the conflict in Algeria continues and remains so brutal?
A: It’s very complicated. There are lots of problems. Algeria has oil and other minerals and I think a lot of the men who orchestrate the conflict are only intent on grabbing as much of these riches for themselves. I do not study politics but songs can carry ideas and I hope in this way I can contribute something positive to Algeria.
Q: Do you see any solution to the continuing conflict in Algeria?
A: I can’t say 'this is the government' or 'this is the fundamentalist' - in Algeria we don’t know who does the killing. It’s injustice... I don’t know what is the solution but people who believe in peace and work for peace are the solution. That is the only way - the positive.
Read our Souad Massi profile.
// Radio 3 Awards for World Music